June 2, 2004
A Gas-Guzzling Revenge Plot Meets Souped-Up Sales Pitch
he Last Ride," which appears tonight on USA, is a brazen commercial for Pontiac that is souped up to look sort of like a car-chase movie. The network has made no pretense about this, hyping its achievement as a "unprecedented integrated marketing opportunity." You can't skip the ads without missing the movie.
Sure enough, gleaming cars with fantastic handling are never far from view, or earshot, as roaring engines and singing brakes dominate the soundtrack. During a scene at a car show, no less, a woman in leather even recites the mantra of Pontiac's new sports car: "Zero to 60 in 5.3 seconds!"
Fortunately, this 84-minute commercial stars Dennis Hopper, looking sheepish but amused, and it is not dreadful. What's more, in so boldly juxtaposing its themes of brand loyalty and blood loyalty, the show turns the corporate cultivation of rebel spirit into a gleeful goof. What? Advertising during a television movie? By a car company claiming to be cool? Lighten up.
So here's the story. Matt Purnell (Chris Carmack), a cop's son and aspiring hood, is also the grandson of a hood, Ronnie Purnell (Mr. Hopper), who was put away in 1970 for robbing banks. Matt and Ronnie team up to avenge Ronnie's arrest.
If it takes a minute to accept that people whose parents were hippies in 1970 are themselves now bald squares — parents of cool kids, not cool kids themselves — it is worth making that adjustment to witness the tender love between today's "O.C."-type pranksters and their rebel heroes from 30 years ago. With his love of fast cars and pit-crew clothes, Matt is a human footnote to Ashton Kutcher; he is so insouciant and cute as to be chided for posturing by his pals. (You can imagine him watching "Easy Rider" and loving it.)
It makes perfect sense, then, that Matt admires Ronnie, whose release from prison kicks off the plot. Mr. Hopper is in fine form. As he has for years, he looks much sadder than, say, Jack Nicholson, as though the mayhem of drugs and bikes really did force on him a lifelong reckoning. Stiff around the shoulders, with mournful eyes, Mr. Hopper is believable as an ex-con.
With the exception of one car chase and one drag race, the first half of the movie is a lecture on its plot. We learn that Ronnie went to jail for an altruistic crime, during which his wife was murdered. His son, Aaron (Will Patton), was left in the custody of sinister security executive Darryl Kurtz (Fred Ward), and became a police detective. Aaron's own son, Matt, quit school to hang out with his girl (Nadine Velazquez), a curvy mechanic with a welding torch, and some bad seeds who hang out and make cars run like greased lightning. If Matt is going to go straight, he is going to have to learn from his jailbird grandpa, who is seeking revenge on the evil Kurtz.
In all this exposition one glaring element of the story is left to speak for itself. That is, of course, the overbearing presence of Pontiacs: new ones, old ones, S.U.V.'s, race cars, luxury cars, Bonnevilles and GTO's. Logos abound, as well as shiny prototypes, and one standout conversation goes like this:
Ronnie: "You kids today don't know how to handle a V8?"
Matt: "Don't need it. This one's got quarter-inch lines, hotshot 421 headers, Tenzo intake and exhaust, and an NX noz system."
There's no hiding it: everyone here, especially Mr. Hopper, is shilling. As his Ronnie points out, everyone hated the establishment in the 60's; but this rage, the movie makes clear, has gone the way of the carburetor. General Motors is thus free to present itself as our delinquent pal, and our link to America's lawless past. After all, part of what Matt admires about Grandpa Jailbird is his virtuosity with a car, and in particular a '69 GTO.
Advertising has steadily migrated into programming during the past several years, with shows like "American Idol" and "Survivor" embracing product placement. Maybe this show, which goes further than any in memory toward total desegregation, will provoke an outcry; probably people just won't watch it.
That's good revenge. Still, there is some fun in "The Last Ride," as Mr. Hopper and Mr. Ward slip into two boomer prototypes: the burnout and the yuppie. As Mr. Carmack and Mr. Patton act around these notional figures, the movie becomes an allegory of decade-based American history. As you might predict, something happens to the men that reconciles the present with the recent past, and that past with a more distant past. But what brings the movie home, finally, is that Matt ends up with the 2004 Pontiac GTO, and makes it to 60 m.p.h. in 5.3 seconds. It's touching.
THE LAST RIDE
USA, tonight at 8, Eastern and Pacific times; 7, Central time
Directed by Guy Norman Bee; Rob Cohen, Angela Mancuso and Bruce Mellon, executive producers; written by Ron McGee.
WITH: Dennis Hopper (Ronnie Purnell), Will Patton (Aaron Purnell), Chris Carmack (Matt Purnell), Fred Ward (Darryl Kurtz) and Nadine Velazquez (J. J.).